What Did We Learn?

Martin E. Marty

“The American economy has just had its worst decade since the 1930s,”banners a headline in The Economist (Feb. 27, 2010):“Though the recession is now supposedly at an end, the pain of the noughties’ miserable economic performance will be felt for a long time to come.” Such measured language allows for more calm exploration than does that employed in the apocalyptic “Financial Crash” headlines that have appeared and will appear these years. Most useful is the emergent one: What did we learn from the collapse? 

The answer will depend on who are the “we” in that question. The global victims and agents of the di- saster? The nation? The bankers? The economists? The churches? I threw in that last reference, implying with it an extension to include all forms of religious institutions and leaders. By now a comment has become a truism: the churches – I’ll keep using that term – played little public part in analysis or prescription on the economic front these past two years, and perhaps many years before them. After all, the churches and their leaders are sideliners, 

Isaiah and New Testament writers have much to say that is overlooked and under-heard where “the dismal science” of economics experts spreads dismal words. 

not mainliners, in many fields, thanks to the often beneficial and always inevitable division of labor in the modern professions.

That division into specialties, so comfortable to many in other professions, cannot in this case so easily be used to let the churches be passive, silent, or “at ease in Zion.” At virtually all points in their ministry, their life and issues are entangled with economic realities, and their people are victims or agents of the recent troubles. Almost every denomination and voluntary agency of religion has been stunned and staggered by the decline in endowments and offerings on which their funding potential and many of their beneficent actions depend. Some leaders have been cowed by members and commentators who virtually sneer, “Who made you experts in economics? Stick to your spiritual knitting!” Others back off when they find that whatever they say gets typed as “socialist” or “laissez-faire capitalist” by warring factions in church and society. Who needs conflict also on that front when religious groups are already torn apart in fights over sexual issues?

Mum on Mammon

Some thoughtful Jews, Christians, and others here and there are raising voices and organizing to begin to show that they have learned much, but never to pretend to be candidates for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. An internet search will reveal many informed impulses to address the void of religious voices in economics. These may take the form of courses at theological schools, at “Centers for the Study of … ” e.g., religion and economics, and more.

Nevertheless, that there had long been a void was obvious. I recall showing visitors my library a half century ago when the civil rights cause, which was led in no small part by expert African-American “Reverends” and multi-racial ecumenical councils, dominated concerns, as the economy now does. There were groaning shelves weighted down by books of religious ethical talk on race relations, as well as growing shelves full of books on the ethics of war and peace. However, “economics” barely showed up there or among the stacks of books sent for review to The Christian Century, where I was book review editor for decades. Theological ethical titan Reinhold Niebuhr was an exception as author around mid-century, but he had few influential sucessors.

Rand, Wrong

The best of what preachers, professors, theologians, and lay leaders in Jewish and Christian circles have learned are several valuable lessons that are congruent with their mission. For example and first of all, most of them were blind-sided by the economic disaster while, with so many others, they were developing strategies and preachments that did not ac- count for bubbles bursting. The global bursts might serve well again to remind themselves and others whom they reach of a motif that theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stressed, latinized as sub conditione Iacobi. That was a reference to the Epistle of James 4:13-15 that is often under-stressed in good times and in powerful nations. It relates to what should be a religious specialty: dealing with life with awareness that it is transient and contingent.

They can further tie that awareness to another biblical motif, Put not your trust in princes (Psalm 146:3), including princes in the academy, the financial sector, and government. This reaches far beyond the Bernard Madoffs. A more graspable and typical illustration of the Psalm’s theme that these “princes … are but mortal” came in 2008 and 2010 when former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a devotee of the anti-gospel of Ayn Rand, ’fessed up with an abject “I was wrong” in his economic counsels. That “wrongness” contributed to the disaster that hit almost all sectors of society, including the religious.

“I Am a Citizen”

Rather than rely for illustration only on these negative-sounding warnings and judgments, a reliance that could lead the churches’ voices to sound not prophetic but instead merely crabby, it is worthwhile to visit the theological repository of positive options. One clue to the positive turn hit me once, among many times, as I shaved to the background of a

National Public Radio interview. I had been listening only casually, and shaving-cream-lathered hands kept me from taking notes. The interviewee was a physician of retirement age, who no longer had to practice. But he was described as someone who continued to devote many hours serving patients who otherwise had no health care or any possibility of getting insurance and care. A simple exchange sealed the encounter. Why was he doing this service instead of just fishing and golfing? His answer was brisk: “Because I am a citizen.”

One heard little of such reminders in public language of church or state during the health care debates. In most of them, the first word was simply partisan, whenever the parties of “No” vs. “Maybe” vied for public attention. The second word was politically polemical, as in “The U.S. cannot afford it” vs. “It must.” The third was unneighborly and anti-social: “My part of the economy is doing well enough, so it needs no notice.” The fourth was secular: “That’s socialist!” or “That’s capitalistic!” There is little point in opening a theological-ethical conference or class where such reductionism can- not be transcended. “I am a citizen,” on the other hand, is a public lead-in to something more probing and promising.

Within the Christian tradition there are many parallel or analogous reminders that get carried over from injunctions having to do with norms of the believing community.

The epistolary reminder that “we are members one of another” is most intimate and rich in Christian definition, but it travels well and can serve as a check against simple individualism – and can do this without impelling a “fall into so- cialism.” 

For instance, the epistolary (Eph. 4:25, Romans 12:5) reminders that “we are members one of another.” That joint-membered claim is most intimate and rich in Christian definition, but it travels well and can serve as a check against simple individualism – and can do this without impelling a “fall into socialism.” Church and synagogue enact such bondings in many of their charitable initiatives, but the theme should also inform public discourse.

If, in a modern technologically complex society, one enters environmental or health care debate – or, better, conversation – bringing reminders of the communal nature of existence, then certain questions follow. Suppose we begin discourse with “I am a citizen” or “we are members one of another.” With such claims on the table we are compelled to pursue the practical questions of how that works out. With many options available, citizens and fellow members do not have to move toward totalitarian- ism or selfish individualism. Instead, their discussions acquire a new color if one is concerned for all who suffer in a spoiled environment and for millions who are forgotten in many health care debates and policies. Any familiarity with the internet, the library, or one’s memory bank will reveal how often such realities get overlooked – by church, synagogue, and mosque – in the crowd of world views and ethics that derive from cable television, radio talk shows, or strident columns in print.

Lowering Expectations

I had a chance to be better informed about economics, having taught for thirty-five years in the zone of the University of Chicago’s “free market” Nobelists and their critics, and in the shadow of the then-next-door Business School. Very rarely were there interactions between our ethicists and their scholars and teachers, and the absence of interaction, if anything, only grows as graduates (as pastor, theologians, or activists) settle into their grooves.

What have we learned? It is anything but an antiquarian appeal to say to religious people: go forward, back to your sources. Isaiah and New Testament

What have we learned? It is anything but an antiquarian appeal to say to religious people: go forward, back to your sources. 

writers have much to say that is overlooked and under-heard where “the dismal science” of economics experts spreads dismal words. Russ Roberts, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, not a bastion from which anti-economist missiles are lobbed, recently in The Wall Street Journal (“Is the Dismal Science Really a Science?”, Feb. 27, 2010) called these the best of times and the worst of times for economists. They are best “because everyone wants to understand what happened to the economy and what’s going to happen next.” As for the “worst,” economists offer no consensus “on the cause of the crisis or the best way forward.”

Roberts in that column was not throwing rocks at all economists – he is one – or throwing in the towel. He does not reject “facts” that undergird economet- rics or data used for planning. Doing so would be absurd. He and other humbled economists are call-

ing for reappraisals and awareness of the complexity of human interactions. “The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists,” who wield powerful tools and lenses for organizing thinking. “We should be honest about what we know, what we don’t know and what we may never know.”

Religious and ethical thinkers and leaders claim to deal with some profound specialties that are part of the societal whole. Humbled by the knowledge that they need to know more, but liberated by the knowledge that economics and politics will never teach them enough, they do well to go “back to the books,” including scriptures, and then forward, better equipped to face the very uncertain future. 

Martin E. Marty, a preeminent interpreter of American church history and religious life, taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School for thirty-five years. He is a columnist, editor, pastor, and the author of more than fifty books.